Cambodians traditionally greet each other by pressing their palms together in front of their bodies and bowing, called a 'sompeah', with a younger or lower rank person gernerally initiating the greeting. This custom has been partially replaced by the Western practice of shaking hands and it is considered acceptable for foreigners to shake hands with Cambodians of both sexes.
The head is regarded as the highest part of the body, both literally and figuratively. As a result Cambodians don’t approve of touching anyone there, even in a friendly gesture.
If possible, a business card in both English and Khmer on the reverse side should be presented during the initial greeting.
While English is becoming more widely spoken, foreigners should try to ascertain whether their partner is fluent in English and if not, utilise an interpreter to ensure a smooth meeting and follow-up.
Businessmen can be addressed with 'Mr' and their first name or for women, 'Madam'. Many senior managers in Cambodian companies or high level officials have the title 'Your Excellency'.
Social engagements such as eating or playing golf can create a level of mutual trust and understanding between business partners. Foreign businesses who have been successful have taken considerable time to build the necessary business and government contacts to operate successfully.
Face-to-face contact is very important in initial dealings and a capacity to understand (often) a very different set of viewpoints. It is important not to become angry, abusive or frustrated, voicing one’s anger is unlikely to achieve much, particularly if a Khmer is forced to 'lose face' in front of his or her colleagues. Foreigners should take care to avoid a confrontational or aggressive style in their business meetings. Cambodians are generally not direct or forthright in their dealings and take to subtle, rather than blunt, messages. Cambodians will often say yes to direct questions, but this may only mean that they hear and understand you, but nothing more.
It is very important to determine at the outset in any business dealings the hierarchy and seniority of whom you are dealing with and those responsible for decision-making. Correspondence and communications should be addressed to the senior decision-makers. Decisions often take a considerable length of time as they are relayed up and down the chain of hierarchy due to the lack of delegation within companies or government ministries.
A small token of gratitude in the form of a gift is always appreciated when visiting and should always be offered with the right hand. If wanting to be particularly polite, foreigners should support their right elbow with the fingers of their left hand.
While the Khmer language is not easy, Cambodians will sincerely appreciate any efforts to learn their language. Basic greetings or several words in Khmer, even if mispronounced, will act as a good icebreaker in business dealings and show that you are keen to understand an integral part of the culture.
Before entering a home, shoes should always be removed. It is considered rude to point with your feet, particularly the soles of your feet, towards a person or object, use your hand instead. Try to avoid doing so when sitting opposite anyone. Tuck your feet away under your body when sitting on the floor or on a chair.
For men, lightweight suits, including one dark suit and tie for official occasions, are appropriate as formal business attire and light coloured suits are also acceptable. Trousers and an open-neck shirt are acceptable office wear on most occasions. For women, most styles of Western dress are acceptable in Cambodia, but very short dresses and skirts and brief tops should be avoided. Cotton is the most appropriate fabric because of the heat.
Links and resources
Government, business and trade
Australian Embassy in Cambodia
Auscham in Cambodia
International Monetary Fund (Economic update)
Ministry of Commerce
Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation
Phnom Penh Municipality
General Department of Taxation
General Department of Customs
News and media
The Cambodia Daily
The Phnom Penh Post
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